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Is Your Poodle a Wolf in Dog's Clothing?

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DOG

The idea that the family dog views you, your spouse and your children as a wolf pack ripe for conquest has come to dominate much of our thinking about dog behavior.

It's a belief system popularized by The Dog Whisperer, a cable TV show starring Cesar Millan, a trainer who puts misbehaving canines firmly their place on a weekly basis. Invariably, the well-intentioned owners of these dogs have lost their status as alpha male (or female) in the pack. The alpha dogs attack mailmen, torment children, tear the house up, growl menacingly, bite passersby and generally make life miserable until Cesar compels the wayward tail-waggers to submit to their human overlords.

Alexandra Horowitz finds it all a little depressing.

"When you look at actual wolf behavior in the wild, the pack is a family unit. There's no dominance hierarchy," she said in an interview with HuffPost. "It's simply bizarre to think that your dog is trying to overtake you as an alpha."

Horowitz, who teaches psychology at Barnard, is the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, a book that vaulted on to the New York Times best seller list following its publication in 2009 and remains there today.

"I had been doing research into animal cognition and I wound up studying dogs," she explained. "I realized that while there was all sorts of research out there, none of it was really reaching dog owners. I thought it would be interesting to translate this material for owners who are asking, 'What's on my dog's mind? What is she thinking about?'"

According to Horowitz, your dog is not thinking about overthrowing you. Also, your pet is not pining to join the human race.

"There are owners who treat their dog like a little furry person," she said, turning thumbs down on canine coats. "Costumes make no sense for dogs."

"And a birthday party for your dog may just be an opportunity for stress when a lot of dogs come over and eat her food."

Inside of a Dog is a mix of scientific findings about dog behavior and perception and personal reminiscences about Horowitz's own dog, Pumpernickel, who roamed the Upper West Side before its death a few years ago.

Many dog owners send her pictures of their pets, which she finds "unexpected and very sweet."

Horowitz regards New York City as "a great place to raise dogs" because owners are forced to interact with them a lot, take them on walks, and give them a chance to meet other dogs.

"It's really important that dogs are socialized," she said.

Horowitz doesn't feel there's anything wrong with having a big dog in a small apartment, because "they're often much more mellow than small dogs."

She also doesn't think owners should feel overwhelmed with guilt if they're forced to leave their pet alone while they're at work.

"Dogs are pretty adaptable," Horowitz said. "One of the reasons we've kept dogs around is that they deal with a lot of different hardships. And one hardship is being alone a lot of the day with nothing to do. They deal with it."

As a boredom-fighter, Horowitz hid treats around her apartment for her dog to uncover during the course of the day.

"Dog walkers are great. I don't think that's an indulgence," she added. "Some people leave their radios on when they leave for the day. This might drown out some of the little outside noises that distract or worry your dog. So I don't think it's a bad idea."

Two words stand out in Horowitz's approach to canines: sniffing and socializing. Since a dog's world is mainly one of scents and odors, it's important to let your dog sniff to her heart's content when possible, especially around other dogs.

And don't be embarrassed if your dog's way of making friends begins with a nose to the rear end.

"Some people really do see the dog as an extension of themselves, and of course you wouldn't approach a stranger and stiff his rump, right? We treat our dogs as if they're doing something impolite themselves."

"Most of the dog owners I see in New York City are terrific. They have a huge investment in their dog but not an over-weaning investment."